Purdue opens spring practice on Friday, Feb. 19, and the program hopes to use the offseason workouts to get back on track after three consecutive losing seasons. The Boilermakers went 7-6 in coach Jeff Brohm’s debut in 2017 but finished 6-7 in ’18, 4-8 in ’19, and 2-4 in the abbreviated ’20 Big Ten slate. After a 2-0 start last fall, Purdue lost its next four games – but none of those defeats came by more than 10 points. In other words, with small improvement, a few of those close losses could flip to wins in 2021. That’s why this set of spring practices are so important for the Boilermakers.
Brohm returns 14 starters for 2021, including standouts David Bell (receiver) and George Karlaftis (end). The coaching staff features a couple of new faces. Brad Lambert will be the program’s third defensive coordinator in three years after replacing Bob Diaco for 2021. Also, Mark Hagen was hired to coach the defensive line, and Ron English will tutor cornerbacks.
5 Storylines to Watch During Purdue’s Spring Practices
1. The Quarterback Room
The Boilermakers have struggled to get consistent quarterback play since David Blough moved on to the NFL at the end of the 2018 season. Jack Plummer, Aidan O’Connell and Elijah Sindelar combined for 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 2019, while Plummer and O’Connell passed for 1,854 yards and 15 scores and four interceptions last season. Both quarterbacks started three games in 2020 and will compete this offseason for the starting nod. O’Connell will be limited this spring due to injury, leaving Plummer, Michael Alaimo and Austin Burton to handle the bulk of the work. Will there be much separation among the quarterbacks this spring? Can Alaimo – a four-star recruit in the 2020 signing class – make an impression?
2. Develop the Offensive Line
Purdue’s offensive line gave up only 12 sacks, but rushers only managed 3.3 yards per carry. There’s work to do here, especially at left tackle with Grant Hermanns – the unit’s top player – is off to the NFL. Brohm moved Neil Callaway from an off-field role to work as the program’s assistant offensive line coach, so there will be extra help on the staff for spring practice.
The good news for Callaway and offensive line coach Dale Williams is there should be plenty of talent to work with and mold into a productive starting five. Four starters are back, including Greg Long who will kick over to left tackle in spring practice. Also, center Sam Garvin returns after starting every game in 2020. The interior or one of the tackle spots will also get a boost in ’21 once Cam Craig returns to the lineup after missing five games due to a season-ending injury. Gus Hartwig is another promising option that could start at guard or center. Additionally, WKU transfer Tyler Witt – a three-year starter for the Hilltoppers – joins the mix for ’21.
Purdue isn’t likely to settle the exact starting five and the positions those players will start for the opener in spring practice. However, this set of workouts is all about getting reps and putting the pieces in place to finalize the top unit in fall practice.
3. Find Big Plays on the Ground and Fill Out the WR Corps
The Boilermakers return two capable running backs in Zander Horvath and King Doerue. However, Purdue had only two rushes of 30-plus yards and none of 40 or more in 2020. This isn’t a one-year problem either. The Boilermakers managed only one rush of 40 or more yards in ’19. Brohm and his offensive staff need more overall production from the ground game, as well as more big plays. Horvath conjures memories of Mike Alstott at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, while Doerue brings a good mix of power and speed to the lineup.
It’s no secret David Bell will be the No. 1 target for whichever quarterback wins the starting job, but Rondale Moore is off to the NFL. Who steps up to take on a bigger role on the outside? Receivers Milton Wright (24 catches), Jackson Anthrop, Maliq Carr, TJ Sheffield as well as tight ends Payne Durham and Garrett Miller will all contribute and provide plenty of options for the coaching staff to deploy. Can Wright emerge as a steady No. 2 option to take some of the defensive attention away from Bell?
4. Build a Foundation on Defense
As mentioned previously, Lambert is Purdue’s third defensive coordinator in three years. That amount of transition in a short period of time certainly hinders the ability to establish an identity and direction on defense. What stamp will Lambert put on the defense in his first spring in West Lafayette? Will the Boilermakers deploy only three-man fronts? Or will there be a mix of three- and four-man looks to improve a defense that allowed 29.8 points a game last season? The pass rush also has to find a spark after generating just five sacks in 2020.
Lambert has work to do in building the scheme for 2021, but there are pieces to work with. End George Karlaftis is one of the best in the Big Ten, with fellow end Damarcus Mitchell returning after registered six tackles for a loss in his first year with the Boilermakers. The rest of the line is sturdy with Brandon Deen, Anthony Watts, Lawrence Johnson and South Carolina transfer Joseph Anderson ready to battle for snaps. Also, Yanni Karlaftis (George’s brother and a four-star recruit) will be a factor off the edge later this offseason after he returns to full health from an injury suffered in high school. Standout linebacker Derrick Barnes must be replaced.
5. Improve the Secondary
This unit is arguably Lambert’s biggest concern. Purdue ranked 12th in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense last season and allowed quarterbacks to complete 65.6 percent of their throws. Safety Brennan Thieneman finished his eligibility, leaving cornerbacks Cory Trice and Dedrick Mackey and safety Cam Allen as the returning starters on the back end. Iowa transfer D.J. Johnson played in five games last season but is not on the spring roster for 2021. Geovonte Howard also in the mix for snaps at cornerback. Marvin Grant is dealing with an injury this spring but could claim the open safety spot by the time the 2021 opener arrives. Florida transfer C.J. McWilliams is also expected to push for playing time this offseason. Lambert has options, but can this group find the right mix and improve before the opener?
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